December 23, 2008

Nothing Wagered, Nothing Gained

I find a get a little tense this time of year. I want to believe I’m simply being honest with myself. My wife tells me I’m just a Grinch. Could be. (I do know that if I hear Johnny Mathis sing “Sleigh Bells” one more time on my car radio I’m likely to commit a heinous crime.)

But it’s more than Muzak.

It’s these well-traveled “Christmas stories” in our Scriptures. They make me nervous. I find that Gospel readings are like small dogs: the smaller and cuter and more cuddly they appear, the more likely they are to nip you where it hurts. I worry that these gospel tales have grown so familiar to us that they no longer pop as they should.

For instance, we all love those wisemen from the East, with their Burger King crowns and boxes of bling, following the star on their well-known adventure. It’s comfy tale. But, my God! They follow God’s light right up to Herod’s doorstep, right into the throws of a murderous political machine that makes Illinois’ Governor whatever-his-name shenanigans look like kids’ play.

Is Matthew suggesting that following the light of Christ will inevitably bring us into conflict with the anxious powers of the world--when the boss suggest you cook the books, when the big kid suggests you all beat up on the little kid, when the neighborhood gossip group invites you to tear down the stranger. Is Matthew suggesting that God’s great light, while bringing warmth, also exposes darkness? “Be prepared,” say the wise men, “to grapple with all sorts of selfishness, sinfulness, and sanctimony.” What a narrative! And to this we say, “Look here, I just want to celebrate Christmas.”

But these are unsettling stories. Old Zechariah: He cannot imagine his geriatric wife giving birth to a prophet--or anyone, for that matter. So in response, God takes away his voice until John the Baptist is born. Lovely. Shepherds: minding their quiet business late into a third shift. Suddenly the sky is ripped open. Luke says, simply, “They were terrified.” You think?

And then there’s Mother Mary. Christmas would not be complete without hearing from good old Gabriel, with his soothing baritone voice, Canon in D playing lightly in the background, and 
a rose-colored gel softening the spotlight on Mary’s pristine face.

(Now you know why my wife calls me a Grinch.)

Yet my sarcasm is not about deriding Scripture, but about naming our propensity to domesticate it, to tame it, to turn salvation -- God’s dogged insistence that the world be set to right -- into a sentiment. We want to keep at bay this potent Holy Spirit that advances on Mary and turns her young life upside-down. We want a “holiday,” not a life-change, so we tend to plane off the rougher edges of Jesus’ birth until there is no more risk telling his story.

But this is a risky narrative, full of delicacy and danger: an unwed teenage mother; an intruding, insistent angel; an overcoming, overshadowing Holy Spirit.

Could there be in a sacred tale a finer line between disaster and triumph? Could there be a more dangerous announcement to young girl than an angel letting her in on the fact that you, Mary -- untutored, unknown, unwed, unsophisticated Mary -- you will be vessel for divine revelation. Could there be a more delicate venue for God’s activity than a young virgin’s womb? Consider it: The living God! Flying in low and under cover, sneaking into world under our radar, in the fuselage that is, of all things, a virginal uterus. (Even our English Bibles get in on the domestication. Note the NRSV: “She was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” It sounds like they’re having tea.)

Astonishing gospel! Dangerous narrative. Unbelievable God.

And yet what I respect about the Bible is its dogged insistence on presenting the story. To my laments of risk and danger I hear the Bible saying back to me: “You know what, preacher? It is a remarkably hard tale to swallow. We know that better than you do, in fact. But nothing wagered, nothing gained. Risky? Absolutely. But also righteous. And revelatory. Her little womb, a window into God’s way with the world.”

Pull up a chair in the delivery room, the OB/GYN office that is Luke 2. Take a seat and see how God’s living word brings forth impossible new life. After all, could there be any more provocative an image for what God might be up to among us than the delicate picture of God’s divine Spirit -- that same breathing, brooding Spirit present at the creation of all things, hovering over the unformed waters of chaos and nothingness of Genesis 1 -- that same Holy Spirit brooding over the wilderness of an empty tomb. (Did I say tomb? I meant womb.) Christmas and Easter … they start to look a lot alike when you begin to get their New Testament meaning: God’s love brings forth unimaginable life.

So amid all that is before you this week, amid wrapping and running and baking and driving -- right on the thick of your life, be it blessed or beleaguered -- I invite you once again into this riskiest but most righteous of confessions: Consider the dangerous possibility that the same Holy Spirit that brooded over the waters of creation, the same Holy Spirit that brooded over Mary’s waters, is the same Holy Spirit of God broods over these moments when we gather in Jesus name, and the same Spirit that broods over your bed every morning -- unbidden, unsolicited, but always inviting farther and farther down this Jesus way, toward the Father.

This same Holy Spirit hovers over your life, inviting you to consider what impossible new thing God might do with the pregnant possibilities of new day: those fertile but not-yet-realized possibilities for fresh faith, new ministry, living witness.

No matter what dangerous road God calls you down, no matter what impossible dream God invites you to dream, no matter what risky, barren wilderness God invite you to cross: Remember, God’s love brings forth unimaginable life. “Nothing will be impossible with God,” says the angel.

Our dangerous response? “Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.”